Change Management : A Catch-22

The catch-22

The levels at which impacts of change are major are not understood while the levels at which impacts are minor are easily understood.


Most managers believe people resist change because humans have a natural desire to keep the status quo. They believe that resistance to change is a defense mechanism caused by frustration and anxiety. With this diagnostic, executives belief that good change leadership comes with a strong message from the top, effective communication plan, mandatory training and sometimes, removing undesirable parties that are labeled as strong change resistant.
In fact, Individuals aren’t really resisting the change, but rather resist the loss of status, loss of pay, or fear they will not be able to achieve the same level of performance. While causes of losses of pay or statuses are visible, causes impacting performance involve factors at the unconscious level that are difficult to communicate.
We observe that in many business transformation initiatives those fears were justified. New processes would not permit anymore efficient tactics evolved over years of trial and errors.
How can we distinguish between fear and facts?
First, let’s look at the nature of change in human work, the impact of business transformation initiatives and to finish, what to do about it.

Why change is difficult in work setting?

Change happens on an individual and organizational basis. Change is everywhere: mergers, new policies, new technology, new management . . .
Employees resist change because they have to learn something new. They fear the unknown future and their ability to perform.
The unknown comes from subtle and nonverbal aspects of human work that are difficult to communicate.
The nature of work
Jens Rasmussen observed that human work is either at: the skill level, rule-based level or knowledge level. Don Norman also came to the same conclusion.
When driving a car, turning the wheels is at the skill level while letting the other car passes at the intersection is at the rule-based level. Deciding to choose a route over another one is the knowledge level.
In addition, we observe that there is a fourth level, usually called “meta-cognition” but I prefer to use “wisdom”, which involves self-awareness about our own limitation. For example, if tired or drunk, hopefully, we might decide not to drive.
Any human activity: tasks, sport, arts or leisure lies within those levels.

The impacts of change

Changing something at the knowledge level is relatively easy. If someone shows you a better route to go somewhere, you only need to understand the advantage and good indications and voila, you can execute the change.
At the rule-based level, it is a bit more difficult but manageable. For example, if the state decides to change the law and permit right turn on red light, an action previously forbidden, at first you need to pay a little bit more attention to apply the new rule. You may even forget to apply it but with little time and patience, turning on the red light will become natural.
The real challenge is at the skill level. Let’s say the car manufacturer decides to invert the position of the break pedal and gas pedal. It will take you months of practice and you might make many errors that might event kill you. Change will be very difficult to accept and you might express a high degree of frustration. You will certainly not use this car if you have the choice.
Those examples show that: efforts to execute a change at the skill level are much higher than at the rule-based or knowledge based level. The level of energy required is dependent of the level of work affected by change: being at the skill, rule-based or knowledge based level.
Convincing a golfer to change his swing is a much more difficult challenge than convincing him to change club number to reach the green. It requires much more energy to acquire the new swing.
The proposed law of change:

“The effort to execute change will be equal to the amount of energy required to execute the same level of performance.”
“The amount of energy required to change is the highest at the lowest level of wok affected”. Skill based being the lowest level while knowledge based being the highest level.

Business Transformation

In business transformation initiatives, people only understand impact of change at the knowledge and rule-based level but not the ones at the skill level. Skill level is mostly non-verbal and unconscious.
For example, during a word processing task, users might select backspace to delete few letters or they might select the mouse to delete a paragraph. The choice is usually unconscious. This is a good example of a natural way humans optimize energy. According to the keystroke model, it takes 1.2 seconds to delete 6 letters with backspace and it takes 2.6 seconds with the mouse.
Now, let’s say a vendor convinces management to adopt a new word processor. While nicer and with more features, it doesn’t permit using backspace anymore. It is likely that this subtle change would be unnoticed even during a demonstration. Only after implementation employees will complain and express their frustration. As good performers, employees will be frustrated because they cannot achieve the same level of performance. They might even express anger.
This is only the tip of the iceberg. In fact, in a real work setting there is a myriad of such optimizations tactics: being a particular noise, a visual clue, a physical arrangement, a specific sequence…

What to do about it

There is a science, Cognitive ergonomics (called Human Factors in USA), which permits the understanding of human work at all levels including the skill level. Cognitive task analysis permits gathering both verbal and subtle non-verbal operations such as eye movement, cognitive processes and unconscious manual movements. Understating work at all levels permits the understanding of the impact of change at all level of work.

Managers can stop managing change with brute force.

First: stop doing endless meetings and politics and go in the field. Wake-up and forget the meeting rooms, the real world is in four dimensions.
Second: do a field study and cognitive task analysis to fully understand the current situation. Field is rich and wild; people develop very sophisticated tactics.
Third: select a solution or design a new system that will permit skill transfer, keep efficient tactics and strategies and remove problems.
Fourth: before any implementation and at the earliest stage possible, design mock-ups, simulate and test them in the most realistic manner as possible. This is even truer with physical devices because there are so many subtle interactions with the environment.

Easier said than done but at least try to change the change management practice if you want to bring change in your organizations.

6 thoughts on “Change Management : A Catch-22

  1. Avez-vous déjà expérimenté vos techniques avec des approches de développements de systèmes traditionnels (waterfall) et celles dites Agile (ex: Scrum)? Est-ce que l’une s’est montrée plus appropriée par rappport à l’autre?

  2. Nous avons expérimenté (œuvré) dans divers contexte de développement : Waterfall, spiral, RUP, agile (AUP et XP) mais pas formellement SCRUM. Nous avons aussi appliqué notre approche à l’optimisation des processus, la conception de produits physiques, l’aménagement physique la conception de systèmes complexes et la formation.

    En informatique, l’approche agile est la moins mauvaise des approches. A notre avis, aucune des approches informatique ne permet de spécifier les besoins correctement. Souvent, les informaticiens laissent aux analystes d’affaires ou aux clients ce problème. Une méthodologie que ce soit Rational, ou XP, etc. n’adressent qu’en surface les problèmes.

    L’approches agile par la plus grande rapidité d’essais et erreurs accélèrent le développement. Elle n’adresse pas l’essence du problème qui est l’incertitude des besoins. Elle semble même une réaction (saine) à la bureaucratie engendrée par les Waterfall.

    A notre avis, le problème est bien plus l’incertitude d’analyse des besoins qu’une question de méthodologie de développement

    Nous avons démontré au cours de nombreux projets que par une analyse cognitive et de la simulation en avant projet (avant que le budget et le projet de développement) permettent de réduire presque complètement l’incertitude

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